Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the Case of Angelo Herndon.
"All right," said he, "that's enough, I want no speeches from you. What I want to know is whether you'll work if you'll get a job?"
"Yes, your honor, if you have a job to give me I'll surely work."
The judge wrote something on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope....
No sooner had I walked out of the court room when I tore open the letter and saw that it was addressed to the Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan. It read as follows:
"Dear Mr. Murphy:
I'm sending Angelo Herndon to you. He was arrested for vagrancy a few weeks ago and wants to work. Will you please take care of him?
(Signed) Judge Abernathy."
I immediately re-addressed the letter and mailed it to the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper in New York, which played it up prominently on its front page. Upon publication I clipped the story and autographed it for the judge with the following words:
"Compliments. Yours truly, Angelo Herndon."
A few days later I collided with the judge on the street. There was no avoiding him this time. As soon as he saw me he grew red as a beet, and glared at me furiously. (Herndon, Live 112-13)
In his 1937 autobiography Let Me Live, Angelo Herndon recounts this incident from his first months in the Communist Party (CP) in Birmingham in 1930. Arrested for attending a Labor Day rally, he had spent eleven days in the "dog house," the mental ward of the county jail. "Sure, they thought I was crazy. Why not, wasn't I a Red?" (110). Finally he was brought, caged "like a monkey in the zoo," before the wizened, tobacco-spitting judge, H. B. Abernathy. Herndon at first let the scene play as comedy. When the court attendant asked, "Is Angelo Herndon here?" he raised a laugh by replying, "Yes, I'm over here in the cage." Getting nowhere with his argument that the real charge was Communism, not vagrancy, he went along with the judge's ruse of sending him off with a letter of introduction that, not surprisingly, signaled to the Klan to "take care of him." As a seventeen-year-old recruiter for the National Miners' Union in 1930, Herndon knew what Alabama courts and the KKK had in store for "that freak monster, a Negro Red" (100). Another judge had let the "knights" chant "The bastards should be lynched!" from the front benches (101). Though still playing the wide-eyed innocent, Herndon had lost his father to "miner's pneumonia" at age nine and had been down in the mines himself since age thirteen. To get publicity that would keep the Klan at bay, Angelo, more literate than the judge suspected, readdressed this deadly "ticket" to his Northern allies.
This tale about a street-smart orphan who outfoxes the judge and the Klan has timeless appeal. With disarming modesty Herndon goes on to wish that he had also been smart enough to leave town at that moment, for the police later arrested and beat him just for showing his face in Birmingham. Trickster monkey slips his cage, but later pays. Beaten but never beating, the idealistic Angelo is proof against the hysteria about "Negro Reds" and is heir to a noble legacy. His trick involves only the power of his own literacy, a power that judges, bosses, and slaveholders have traditionally underestimated in black youths, especially in future autobiographers. In writing his own "ticket," he replicates the heroic deception of Frederick Douglass, who forged "protection" passes for the Run-Away Plot in 1835. Where the word abolition summoned bondsmen to freedom a century earlier, Angelo heard Communism, and his life was changed. But he was still not free. To the admiring eyes of William Lloyd Garrison on Nantucket in 1841 , the eloquent Douglass was "in soul manifestly 'created but a little lower than the angels'--yet a slave, ay, a fugitive slave" (Preface to Douglass, Narrative 4). The aptly named Angelo recounts his escapes only in the understanding that, even in 1937, he remains subject to being snatched southward to chains and early death. As they did a century earlier, Northerners of conscience threw down a lifeline to their chained brothers in the South, only now it is the Daily Worker, not The Liberator. By calling in the Worker Herndon managed to expose Jim Crow justice, stave off lynching if not battery, and document that this incident really happened. Starting here, Let Me Live goes on to embed over one hundred pages of authenticating documents: legal decisions, speeches, newspaper articles, and letters, ranging from Theodore Dreiser's support to George Schuyler's scorn. This account also stakes Herndon's claim as a nationally known defendant six months before the Scottsboro rape case began in March of 1931 (Live 11 8-24).
From 1932 onward Herndon would ride the coattails of the Scottsboro case when, on the mere evidence of CP publications found in his Atlanta bedroom, he was sentenced under a slave-era statute to 18-to-20 years on the Georgia chain gang for "attempting to incite insurrection." A nation-wide campaign by the CP and the International Labor Defense (ILD) made "Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro boys!" a rallying cry on the Left in the mid-1930s. (1) Writers took note. Langston Hughes wrote a one-act play, Angelo Herndon Jones (1936) (Rampersad 320), as he had Scottsboro Limited in 1932. In an early bid for national publication, Richard Wright submitted an article, "The Way of Angelo Herndon," to New Masses in 1936 (Fabre, Unfinished 135) and, after moving to New York in June of 1937, reported on the cases for the Daily Worker (Fabre, Unfinished 148; McCall 29). Ralph Ellison later recalled the two cases as the big story in Harlem when he arrived in 1936 ("Hidden" 205; "Introduction" 479). But in 1937 Herndon, still waiting for a verdict on his second appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, was firmly in control of his own narrative, as his 400-page autobiography appeared from Random House. Out on bond since 1934, he had become the national figurehead for both cases, often appearing at raffles with a Scottsboro mother. Few weeks went by without a picture of this valiant, dapper, endangered young man in the Worker. Readers of New Masses were offered a copy of Let Me Live as a bonus for subscribing. Reviewing the book in Atlantic Monthly, Dorothy Parker exclaimed, "That trial is completely unbelievable; save that it happened."
Skepticism was justified on some points, for Herndon's portentous debut in the Daily Worker in 1930 never did happen, and in the account quoted above, all names other than the judge's have been changed. Instead of the New York Daily worker (2) it was the new weekly, the Birmingham Southern Worker, which carried the story under the headline " 'Get Job or Go to Jail,' Says Judge" (27 Sept. 1930). There, the innocent bystander Angelo Herndon is identified as the "militant Negro worker" Gene Braxton. Ordered to find a job within days or face jail on the vagrancy charge, Braxton pointed out there were no jobs, at which point "the judge tried to buy him off" with this note addressed to a local KKK leader:
Mr. W. J. Worthington.
First Natl. Bank Building.
Dear Sir: -- I am sending you a man that wants to go to work.
H. B. Abernathy
In 1937 Herndon adds "Will you please take care of him?" to tell quite another tale: He was being set up not for jail but for lynching; he hears the same "take care of you" threat in prison (Live 287). W. J. Worthington is replaced by John G. Murphy, who testified about Braxton and others on behalf of the KKK to the Fish Committee on Communist propaganda in November 1930 (United States 193-200). The alias "Gene Braxton," from his birth name, Eugene Angelo Braxton Herndon, is nowhere mentioned in Let Me Live, but was familiar to police chief Fred H. McDuff from Herndon's arrests in Birmingham (United States 96-98).
Herndon's re-written letter is a minor fabrication, but interesting because its twin shows up in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) when the protagonist/narrator receives seven sealed and betraying job recommendations--"protections," as Robert Stepto points out (187). The narrator rephrases the treacherous letter as follows:
"My dear Mr. Emerson," I said aloud. "The Robin bearing this letter is a former student. Please hope him to death, and keep him running. Your most humble and obedient servant, A. H. Bledsoe...." (Invisible 194)
The invisible man is not clever enough to open his letter, but both young men are kept running--into a pounding (by the Birmingham police, in Liberty Paints) and into the clutches of a political movement. Herndon's "Please take care of him" has become "Please hope him to death," and the white judge H. B. Abernathy (H.B.A.) has been replaced by a black college president (A.H.B.). Reshuffled, these initials also signify on the preacher Homer A. Barbee (H.A.B.) and indeed on the actual author of the letter in Let Me Live, Angelo Braxton Herndon (A.B.H.). If this be coincidence, Ralph Waldo Ellison would doubtless welcome it, as he played the name game here, mixing obvious allusion (Emerson: Ralph Waldo) and obvious association (Bledsoe: 'bled so') with recondite reference: Jules Bledsoe, an opera singer (Ellison, "Essential" 157). There is, then, a good chance that the signatory's initials or even an 'a bear' pun (A. Hebert/Abernathy) tag an artifact that Ellison has culled from 1930s agitprop to embed in this a pocalyptic scene, during which Emerson's son breaks the Seventh Seal under the sign of Freud's Totem and Taboo. Both Angelo and the invisible man expose the vicious letters in their autobiographies and claim them as a lesson in the school of hard knocks.
Bledsoe's original 250-word letter is obviously also a study in literary pastiche, a high-cultural code that signals to his white patrons to crush the invisible man's" 'great expectations'" (Dickens). He concludes: "'I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler'" (Invisible 191). The ever-receding horizon evokes the "ever-receding fields of Italy" that beckon to Virgil's Aeneas (Aeneid 3.496), and Bledsoe's "hopeful traveler" may cynically invert Du Bois's "weary traveler." (3) Along with the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation Ellison folds in the archetypal kill-the-bearer letters carried by Homer's Bellerophon and Shakespeare's Hamlet, a device discussed by Lord Raglan in The Hero (234-35), which Ellison was reading in the late 1940s ("Same Pain" 76). As a source for Bledsoe's letter, Herndon has never been noticed, and we have not missed him. Yet the intertext with Herndon gives the pas sage something that Ellison valued. Reining in the over-readers of his tricksters, he cautioned: "Archetypes are timeless, novels are time-haunted." Myth must enter the world of the novel through historical moments, "the specific texture of a specific form of social reality" ("Change" 111). For Lord Raglan mythic devices like "Bellerophontic letters" do not happen in history. Save that it happened to Herndon (or so he claims) through the throwback of an Alabama judge who continued the tradition of sending notes along with illiterate slaves and, after slavery, getting rid of newcomers by sealed job recommendations that read "Keep this nigger boy running" (Forrest 316). The continuing survival value of learning to write your own "protections" is confirmed by Herndon's need to make the same point in the same terms a century after Douglass. Like Lord Raglan's wicked kings, the lords of Jim Crow and their vassals conspire in code. The judge's please-take-care-of-him wink to the Klan and Bledsoe's pompous double ta lk to his white patrons are the same scam on different cultural levels, and there is nothing new under the American sun.
Even without Herndon's letter to draw in recent history, to be sure, the invisible man's faltering "ascent narrative" proceeds in the long historical shadows of Douglass and of Booker T. Washington. Having attended both Douglass High in Oklahoma City and Tuskegee Institute for three years, Ellison did not have to search far for that polarity. His protagonist is hailed as "'the new Booker T. Washington'" (305) for galvanizing an eviction protest (most un-Tuskegee-like, but the Brotherhood writes its own history). However, when Brother Tarp hangs up a portrait of Douglass in Brotherhood headquarters, the narrator knows the man only from his grandfather's tales and has never read him in his three years at a Tuskegee-like college and four months of tutoring in the Brotherhood. The great prophet of literacy lives only in oral tradition, and the invisible man's own articles and letters are not "written by himself." Tarp and Douglass soon vanish. In 1943 the Negro Quarterly, which Ellison co-edited, decried the disappearing Douglass: "...the white producers of Negro leadership may hold out as examples for Negroes to follow a Booker Washington--but a Frederick Douglass--God forbid!" The article is by the editor, Angelo Herndon ("Frederick" 313). Having briefly, but only briefly, managed to serve two masters, the Central Committee and Random House, Herndon was eloquent about the condition of black spokesmen for white movements. His "days of certainty" in the CP leave other traces in Brothe rhood headquarters. The 18-to-20 years on the chain gang that was billed as a death sentence ("Let me live!") is exactly what the self-effacing Brother Tarp has survived, nineteen years. Herndon provided an iconic but quickly forgotten black face for the CP (party name: "Gene Braxton"); the Brotherhood has its own icon (party name: "Tod Clifton").
In what follows I shall examine these and other connections, as well as a trail of more focused and rivalrous appropriations by Richard Wright as a Communist and then anti-Communist writer. Let me admit from the outset that in Invisible Man I am chasing a phantom, for the Everywhere and Nowhere of Hemdon's shadow in the text borders on the Everywhere and Nowhere of Ellison's own. It was Ellison who went to Tuskegee, and Herndon who held the Party spotlight, and the two of them who with the Negro Quarterly tried to launch their own North Star in 1942-43. Their experiences and rhetoric are often hard to disentangle in the autobiographical strata of the novel.
That Invisible Man remakes images from the Negro Quartery has been persuasively argued by Larry Neal (111) and Lawrence Jackson (72-73). The "Editorial Comment" that precedes Hemdon's article on Frederick Douglass discusses "the emotion-charged myths, symbols and wartime folklore" of the black masses (Ellison and Herndon 301-02): "Much in Negro life remains a mystery: perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning; perhaps the symmetrical frenzy of the Lindy-hop conceals clues to great potential power--if only Negro leaders would solve this riddle" (301). After witnessing Tod Clifton being gunned down by a policeman, Ellison's protagonist begins to ponder the political significance of three young men in zoot suits who move "like dancers in some kind of funeral ceremony" (Invisible 440). Here Ellison takes up images from Herndon's and his own earlier manifesto about black leadership and refracts them through the more complex optic of Invisible Man. Against the social determinism of the Brotherhood ( and the somewhat veiled Marxism of the Negro Quarterly), the narrator wonders, "What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and these boys his ace in the hole?" (441). Along with the mechanistic Marxist view of history, the authoritative precedent of Douglass--the point of Herndon's article--slips away: "What was I in relation to the boys, I wondered. Perhaps an accident, like Douglass" (442). From Tarp, the invisible man has only the dented leg chain link. A link to what? Not a way to "establish the historical connecting links for guides to action" (Herndon, "Frederick" 306). The zoot suits and the loss of Douglass and Clifton will ultimately lead the narrator to writing instead of ranting. The novel has already undercut Herndon's (and many other people's) pieties about Douglass when the invisible man ponders "how magical it was that he had talked his way from slavery to a government ministry" (381) rather than "from slavery to freedom," as Stepto points out (185). The narrator is foolishly cutting Douglass down to his own size, but we are also reminded that Douglass, like Washington, made his own accommodations. In all, the zoot-suiters, the dance steps, the disappearing Douglass mark the distance from the manifesto-writers of 1943, Herndon and himself, to the novelist that Ellison had become. He traced the novel back to a somewhat similar mome nt in 1945 when he saw not zoot suits but a poster for a blackface "Tom Show" in Waitsfield, Vermont, which caused memories to fall into place, including his agitation for Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro Boys ("Introduction" 479).
Ellison could expect few of his readers in the 1950s to appreciate the autobiographical subtext of these passages, but he closely conserved his own political credentials. He kept coming back to his terror in being rousted off a freight train in Macon County, Alabama, during the Scottsboro trial ("World" 181; "Remembering" 664; "Perspective" 768-69). The invisible man's discovery of the Provos' household effects on a Harlem sidewalk embeds Ellison's own account from New Masses in 1942 of finding the books of an evicted lawyer ("The Way" 311), as well as Herndon's discovery of his copy of Lenin's What Is To Be Done? in the gutter after a police raid (Live 148). The narrator's impromptu speech contains an italicized "What is to be done?" (Invisible 277) that gathers in Herndon, Lenin himself, and the question "Tell us what is to be done, sir!" that Barbee with Tuskegee accommodation never answers in his speech at the college (125). There is also a dialect shift from "totting" (267) to "toting" (269) "as Maryland ers have it" (Douglass, Bondage 148). The reference to Herndon and Lenin is not fortuitous, for the invisible man starts running in Angelo's direction politically once he gets "discovered" by the redhaired/Red Brother Jack.
I differ with Neal's and Jackson's assumption that Ellison alone must be the author of the "Editorial Comment." The style and arguments of Herndon's following article on Douglass are continuous with the editorial, and Invisible Man picks up images from both pieces. Herndon offers a memorable trope for the so-called "Negro leader" promoted by white elites: "He knows neither whom he leads nor where he is leading. Thus his vision is like the moon in eclipse" ("Frederick" 312). Ellison's narrator encounters such a leader at his college in the figure of Homer A. Barbee, blind Homer, who sees neither whom he is leading nor, tripping off the stage, where he is going nor "the moon that looms bloodred behind the chapel like a fallen sun" and "the moon a white man's bloodshot eye" (110). That crazy moon contains Toomer's "blood-burning moon," along with other images of apocalypse and the "deep magenta" of Tuskegee dusks that Ellison recalled whenever he read certain passages from Joyce and Eliot ("Remembering" 673). Bu t as a symbol of the white co-optation of black leadership, the "moon in eclipse" has Herndon's signature, and Barbee's mythicized Founder dies under such an eclipse, staged from the pulpit:
"... And shortly the sky was black, without a moon..."
As his [Barbee's] "mooo-o-on" echoed over the chapel, he drew his chin against his chest until his white collar disappeared, leaving him a figure of balanced unbroken blackness, and I could hear the rasp of air as he inhaled. (Invisible 127)
After witnessing Barbee enact, minstrel-like, the lunar eclipse of black leadership, the invisible man can spot the lunacy in the night: A mockingbird perches on the statue of the "moonlit Founder, flipping its moon-mad tail." The college becomes a nightmarish prison: "The street lamps glowed brilliant in the moonlit dream of the campus, each light serene in its cage of shadows" (134).
Earlier in the day, even before Barbee's (Homer's) myth-mongering, lunacy breaks out when Mr. Norton opens his locket to display the daughter who inspired all his gifts, a Pandora ('all gifts'), as she turns out to be. When opened, the Pandora's box of the locket displays a "delicate flower that bloomed in the liquid light of the moon" (42). Here in the kingdom of Raglan and Freud, Herndon is unexpected, but then in the madness of the Golden Day, the invisible man is called "school-boy" for protecting Mr. Norton (75-84), just as Angelo is accused of thinking he is in "Sunday-school" for protecting a battered fellow-prisoner from a "kangaroo court" (Live 213).
Barbee's miming takes Hemdon's polemical "the moon in eclipse" far beyond politics, and these moons and this lunacy have countless sources. But Let Me Live contains an astonishing scene in which Herndon, the imprisoned revolutionary, dreams his way into the world of archetype--and a very white world it is. Though the details sprawl, it should quickly become apparent why his dream imagery registered on Ellison as he set about to merge Marx and Freud and Raglan. Hemdon reports being rendered moonstruck in prison by a banker's dreams and a dazzling money princess. To establish that he is "prison drunk, sleep drunk, and misery drunk" (Live 281), he recounts how a novel entitled Love on Top of the Hill (where Mr. Broadnax lives) given him by a white banker (like Mr. Norton) induced a hallucination. In this novel a Samson-like boxer (Supercargo) is lured to a sporting house (Golden Day) by a blonde femme fatale (Norton's daughter) and drugged. He begins "to fight like an ox" (so Supercargo) but is subdued and lobot omized (shock treatment), eventually marrying the woman. Not bedtime reading.
Any of these details could be coincidental and they are scattered throughout Ellison's passage, but the similarity of Trueblood's dream to Herndon's leaves little doubt about the matter. Having read the banker's novel, Herndon dreams that he has been drugged and, awakening, does not recognize the "brilliant silvery shimmer" on the wall. "For I had seen that light before, illuminating the dream castles of the princesses in the fairy tales I had read with such breathless excitement when I went to grade school." in fact it is the moon, not seen in two years but visible now that the lining of the cell has disintegrated. Like Trueblood's jaybird, "paralyzed in every part but his eyes" (Invisible 568), he stands transfixed: "And now that I saw it, I stood petrified, with my face against it, and with my eyes closed, letting the beams play on my eyelids" (Live 281). Trueblood himself is paralyzed by dreaming of a white woman in a white dress in a white room. Angelo's own white dreams go back to the terrible time just after his father's death when he saw white and black children happily at play: "I dreamed I saw little white seraphim and cherubim flying about me. They beckoned joyously to me to come and fly with them" (37). No Freudian, Herndon misses the sexual implications of his lunar petrification, which live on in Ellison's moonlit Harlem riot and the narrator's final castration dream ("And your moon..." "He's crazy!" ). As a model of how desire circulates in the culture, this Red Angel(o), a moonstruck revolutionary who fantasizes in jail about fairy princesses courtesy of a white banker, is a dream come true for a modernist. And Ellison knew the dreamer.
There is no accounting for Ellison's associative imagination, of course, least of all in spinning out dreams and madness, but the correspondences in detail suggest that he had both the Negro Quarterly and Let Me Live at hand as he was composing Invisible Man. In the invisible man's quick transit from fame to invisibility--in mere days, whereas Angelo took more than a decade--he crosses paths with Angelo at many points. Like Angelo with the beet-red Judge Abernathy, the invisible man also collides with angry white men in the Prologue and Epilogue. When he accosts Mr. Norton on the subway, "He thought I was mad" (Invisible 578). Hemdon gets the same reaction from a bigoted train conductor: "Leave him alone--he's crazy" (Live 71). This keeps happening (196, 199, 248). And as Herndon shows when he gets out of the Birmingham "dog house" (mental ward), he knows how to work the moment. When the Atlanta police try to scare a confession out of their black suspect by means of a darkened room with coffins and lighted sk ulls, Angelo replies: "'Well, you can't scare me because I am the one and only bogeyman'" (195). The invisible man does not master this art until he is finally driven into the coal hole. Again, the policemen trap their prey in racial stereotypes:" 'Nigger in the coal pile, eh, Joe?'" (Invisible 565). "'Strike a match, the boogy's nuts' " (566). Again, the suspect mockingly claims his cage, as Hemdon did in Abernathy's courtroom, and will supply his own lightbulbs: "Ha! Ha! I've had you in my brief case all the time and you didn't know me then and can't see me now." Mastering the same power (lines) that shocked him senseless at Liberty Paints, the narrator leads down a line from Monopolated Light & Power to light up his coal hole. An exposed line in the Tennessee Coal and Iron coal mine changes Angelo's political life when his friend Jimmy is needlessly electrocuted (62).
Like Joyce and Eliot, Ellison often did not care if his sources were traceable. So it is with "Bledsoe" ("Essential" 157) and "Rinehart" ("The Art" 223). Veterans of the Red 1930s might well spot what he was up to with Herndon. The general readership would know only the rumor, kept alive by Arthur Schlesinger in The Vital Center (1949) (121), that Anna Damon of the ILD had remarked upon meeting Herndon," 'It's a pity he isn't blacker'" (Woltman 1; Schuyler 7). Meeting the narrator in the Chthonian, Ellison's Emma asks, "'But don't you think he should be a little blacker?'" (Invisible 303; Foley, "Rhetoric" 537). In 1953 Herndon was still famous enough to supply one of the names that Wright cynically reapplied in The Outsider, a philosophical novel that, like Invisible Man, revisits the Red 1930s from the perspective of 1950s anti-Communism. With an apparent reference to Langston Hughes as well, whose Angelo Herndon Jones dealt with a rent strike, Wright's character Langley Herndon is a Fascist landlord whom t he Communists are entrapping into an illegal eviction that they can expose in the Daily Worker--an exaggeration of Herndon's methods. Wright is dismissive, but nonetheless hung onto his copy of Let Me Live until his death, one of the few books he had acquired before 1940 (Fabre, Richard 71).
Invisible Man is badly served by any attempt to turn it into a roman clef. The invisible man lives on because he is Candide, Everyman, and many young black Communists (including Dick Wright), and may speak for all of us on the lower frequencies. Yet we underestimate Ellison's craft if we fail to realize how many striking images generally assumed to derive exclusively from belles lettres or folklore also had a political life in the Red 1930s and post-Red 1940s: the kill-the-bearer letters, the bogey man in the electrified coal hole, black leaders in eclipse, moonstruck dreams courtesy of a white banker, and the confused poster boys of the Marxist cult of martyrdom, a.k.a. "Tod Clifton," a.k.a. "Gene Braxton," to whom I must return. But Ellison's genius in subsuming history into his narrative can also bury the facts. Herndon is unjustly forgotten, to the point that he figures in only a few standard reference works and not at all in the important accounts of the forgetting of Scottsboro (Carter; Murray). In what follows I shall fill out the picture of Herndon's political career and then survey the various stages from 1937 to 1958 of Wright's own coming to terms with a Communist writer who was initially more famous than himself. For both Ellison and Wright, the story goes back to 1937, when they met Herndon in New York at the zenith of his fame and watched it vanish. Herndon was the activist whose eclipse left room for the writers.
Angelo Herndon from 1930 to 1943
Herndon's political career was often stranger than the fictions that Ellison and Wright drew out of it. From 1930 to 1932 he operated out of Birmingham, accumulating arrests, beatings, lynch threats, and local publicity as Braxton, but apparently not many recruits. In Atlanta in July of 1932 he had his first and only big success: a march sponsored by the Unemployment Council that pressured $6,000 in relief benefits from the County Commission. He was arrested the next day, tried under an 1861 anti-slave-insurrection statute, and sentenced by the "mercy" of an all-white jury to 18-to-20 years on a chain gang. The evidence found in his bedroom consisted of CP pamphlets, the Daily Worker, the New York Times, and other national journals. The Communist-dominated ILD, for its part, made a radical departure from the reformism and legal conservatism of the NAACP in hiring two young men, Benjamin Davis, Jr., and John H. Geer, the first African American attorneys to have sole control of a major civil rights case in the South. Along with Herndon, they brought the class struggle into the courtroom. As Davis recalled in his memoir, "The real criminals that should be put in the dock were the administrators, benefactors and rulers of the white supremacy system" (98). At one point the prosecutor, "Reverend" John H. Hudson, waved a copy of Red Book Magazine from Herndon's bedroom and proclaimed, "'Look at the red covering of this magazine, Red Book. Is that proof enough?'" (Live 227). Herndon was defiant:" 'You cannot kill the working class!'", the title of a short self-narrative in 1934 (" You" 26; Live 240). Conviction was an afterthought.
The trial was only briefly noted by the national press, and it took the efforts of the CP press and the ILD to make Herndon a household name beside the Scottsboro defendants. That 18-to-20 years on the chain gang meant certain death needed verification (Spivak, Foreword to Herndon, Class 3; Herndon, Live 241), which Ellison satirizes in Brother Tarp's nineteen years on the chain gang. (4) Different as his case was from the Scottsboro rape trial, once Herndon was free on bond in 1934 he toured as an articulate and photogenic spokesman for his jailed comrades, sometimes sharing the stage with a replica of the torture cages used on the chain gang, complete with cardboard figures or volunteers in prison stripes (Live 318; photograph in Martin following 96). Again, Ellison may mock this vaudeville by the contrast between the polished leg chain that Bledsoe shows the invisible man and the dented link that Tarp gives to him. Herndon's cage and spotlight may merge when the invisible man experiences the blinding stage lights at his New York rally as a "seamless cage of stainless steel" (Invisible 341).
Herndon became so identified with the Daily Worker in his own and everybody's eyes that at times he lost track of the distinction. Day after day in 1934 he knelt on the floor of the Fulton Tower Prison to reassemble the shreds of the Worker. "The tattered newspaper assumed a symbolic aspect for me. Even as my jailers had tom it into bits in their rage and hatred of me so was the working class being mutilated and assaulted" (Live 283). Though he is grandstanding here as the imperilled worker/Worker who suffers for all workers, in 1934 his hopes for bond money and lawyers in fact dangled by that very thread, and he danced to it. The invisible man's paper fetish is less grandiose, as he collects diplomas, warnings, and paper dolls in his brief case as if they bore his identity. At the end of his paper trail he performs the exorcism of burning his "protections" to light up the coal hole to which they have delivered him. With these lonely sacraments Angelo and Ellison's narrator both round out the paper hoarding t hat started with the kill-the-bearer notes. By the evidence of Let Me Live, the invisible man's paper fetish is no exaggeration. He has company, of course. The Richard Wright Collection in the bottom drawer of his desk at the Worker was meticulously maintained (Webb 145), as his clipping files at Yale still attest.
Through four years of appeals the Party gathered donations and two million signatures, while the Atlanta Red squad continued to raid bedrooms and burn books. In rejecting Herndon's appeal in 1934, the Georgia Supreme Court kept alive the Nat Turner-era fears that inspired the original anti-insurrection statue: "A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smouldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration" (Herndon v. State 615; Live 390). Herndon's self-narrative, which since 1934 had circulated as a Party pamphlet, "You Cannot Kill the Working Class", was expanded tenfold and appeared as Let Me Live. Herndon was caught between the Central Committee, which could use a martyr, and Random House, which wanted a bestseller like Robert E. Burns's sensationalistic I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! (1932). Herndon apologizes for his "evangelical outbursts" (89) about Communism, but cannot make sense of his life without them.
As a tale of literacy and liberation, Let Me Live sets a classic African American success story under the threat that Angelo may yet be snatched southward to chains. He ends with his triumphal journey northward in 1934 and then, due to a brief lockup in 1935, adds a second freedom ride in the Epilogue. The unmistakable parallels to Douglass in the 1840s are partly a matter of historical coincidence and partly a matter of design. Herndon had refined his tale before scores of Northern audiences, who lionized this tall, articulate, and still perilously unfree young man, "a living embodiment of the fighting spirit of Frederick Douglass," as the Daily Worker put it in 1937 ("Frederick Douglass"). (5) In his 1934 pamphlet, the beating of Douglass's Aunt Hester is retold as that of his great-grandmother even before he gets to his own "I was born..." ("You" 5). He plays fast and loose with his model, invoking Douglass first with Patrick Henry and other Revolutionary Fathers (Live 90) and then, by CP preference, with the firebrand Nat Turner (B. D. Amis, qtd. on 123). Douglass's transformative physical resistance to Mr. Covey is echoed in Angelo's confrontation with an abusive mine supervisor, one Mr. Tucker, "a master in the art of cruelty" (59). Angelo begins the resistance with, "'We are no longer living under chattel slavery'" (60). When Mr. Tucker wields a pick, Angelo, an organizer, not a fighter, leaves the wrestling to a comrade and sees Mr. Tucker put in his place (the lake) as was Mr. Covey (the mud).
Ellison apparently noticed the account. His narrator's debut as an organizer at the Harlem eviction is more inadvertent than Angelo's with Mr. Tucker, but is cut from the same cloth: "'Let's follow a leader, let's organize. Organize'" (Invisible 276). (6) Again, the gut reaction:
Something unaccountable happened to me, something exploded in my brain; I became full of a searing flame. (Live 60)
I looked at the old people, feeling my eyes burn, my throat tighten. (Invisible 270)
Again, discouraged voices rise from the group waiting to be led:
That's the trouble with us Negroes--one white man can lord it over a hundred of us. (Live 61)
That's what's wrong with us now, all this damn praying. (Invisible 274)
Again, the organizer stays out of the fray. Like Douglass, Herndon never shows himself initiating violence (Mr. Covey and Mr. Tucker do that). He too constantly celebrates the power of the written word. As discussed, the invisible man's "What is to be done?" seems to tag Herndon as one source for this scene. The narrator's repetitions of "a slow-to-anger-people" (275-77) may recall the politics and homiletics of Herndon's article, which builds to: "Still do you say ... Still do you say ... Still again do you say, 'But be patient. Things are being done and we are making gains?'" ("Frederick" 323). It was left to Ellison to perfect and simultaneously dismantle Herndon's attempt here to bring a form of Marxist call-and-response alive on the written page.
As it does for the invisible man, the spotlight on Herndon faded quickly. Mere weeks after Let Me Live appeared, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction by a 5-4 vote on April 26, 1937. The next day, Herndon's rescuer, the Daily Worker, announced his triumph and his obsolescence in a single headline: "Herndon Free--Harlem Happy; Fight for Scottsboro Boys is 'What We Want Now'" (27 Apr. 1937). A marked man in the South, Herndon stayed in New York to pursue the writing career begun with his book. (7) Ellison and Wright were also newly arrived, and of the same generation; Wright (b. 1908) was slightly older than Herndon (b. 1913) and Bison (b. 1914). Along with Wright, Herndon wrote for the Daily Worker in 1937, (8) but was later reported to have complained about being given a minor job on the Worker and then frozen out (Woltman 1). While Let Me Live remained on the shelves as the prologue to a martyrdom that never happened, news came from Spain that Angelo's older brother Milton had fallen on 13 October in Saragossa, Spain, fighting in the Frederick Douglass Machine Gun Company of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The Daily Worker published Milton's final letter back, to Anna Damon, hailing the ILD's recent victory in freeing four of the Scottsboro defendants, as well as in freeing Angelo earlier ("Scottsboro Victory"). Wright covered the memorial service for Milton in November in three articles for the Worker. (9)
Herndon edited the short-lived Negro Quarterly with Ralph Ellison in 1942-43, when both men were distancing themselves from the Party (Foley, "Rhetoric" 540; Jackson 71-73; Martin 212-13; Neal 111; O'Meally 54-55). Wright's 12 Million Black Voices received a glowing review from Herndon. Of particular interest in reference to Wright and Ellison is that Herndon exited the party under the sign of Douglass. In the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 he joined with other prominent Harlem Communists to found the Frederick Douglass Historical and Cultural League (Naison 299). In 1942 he spearheaded efforts to get Douglass's Narrative reprinted by Pathway Press (Meyer, Introduction to Live vi). His only signed article in the Negro Quarterly, "Frederick Douglass: Negro Leadership and the War," emphasizes Douglass's break with Garrison and his recognition of the need for an independent black press, such as the North Star and, by implication, the Negro Quarterly. Unlike Wright, Herndon never publicized his break with t he Party, (10) but cites from chapter 23 of My Bondage and My Freedom the prototypical crisis of the black spokesman for a white-led movement:
When Douglass began to work as a lecturer and agent for the Anti-Slavery Society, he was cautioned by Garrison and others to leave the matter of "philosophy," "strategy," and "tactics" to others: he should confine himself to a "simple narration of the facts." But it was humanly impossible for Douglass to follow such instructions. ("Frederick" 308)
This phenomenon repeats itself with Ellison's increasingly independent protagonist, whom Brother Jack finally admonishes: "'You were not hired to think'" (Invisible 469). The invisible man's moment of being "discovered" is as ominous as Douglass later admitted his own on Nantucket to have been: "I am not sure that my embarrassment was not the most effective part of my speech, if speech it could be called" (Bondage 364). "'What speech? I made no speech,' "says the invisible man to his own discoverer, Brother Jack, more enticingly than he realizes (Invisible 288).
After the failure of the Negro Quarterly in 1943, Herndon dropped out of public life, and the record becomes sketchy. On 25 March 1944 the Worker denounced him for nationalism, financial irresponsibility, and fraudulent use of the Party name ("Angelo Herndon Not C.P. Member"). In 1954 his old nemesis, Pittsburgh Courier columnist George Schuyler, reported without citing a source "the sad news that Angelo Herndon alias Gene Braxton had been nabbed in Chicago for allegedly accepting $25,000 from five prospective buyers of the same six-flat building" ("Sad" 7). In an interview in 1972 Ellison recalled that Herndon kept searching for his identity, which had become confused (Moore 213).
Richard Wright from 1936 to 1958
In American Hunger (1945) Wright tells a similar tale about his Communist comrades' resistance to him as an "intellectual," and he too tells it in Douglass's shadow, as Robert Stepto has pointed out (196-98). Though offering unique opportunities to young writers for publication, the CP had absurd expectations about activism. In Chicago an ideologue reproached Wright with the example of one Comrade Evans, whose head was bandaged:
"He got that wound from the police in a demonstration," he explained. "That's proof of revolutionary loyalty."
"Do you mean that I must get whacked over the head by cops to prove that I'm sincere?" I asked. (Black 317)
Ellison's Brother Jack shares this mentality: "'Only you haven't been in prison, Brother...'" (Invisible 469). A bandage sets off the contours of Tod Clifton's handsome jaw. Ellison reports that Wright was also under suspicion as a "dark horse" in the race for Harlem Party leadership, as if sent from Chicago to cause trouble ("Remembering" 662) and, as Ellison wrote to Constance Webb, "dwelled upon the antagonism of fellows who were little more than newsboys who delivered the Daily Workei" (Webb 404-05n4).
Though Wright never admits it in American Hunger, in early pieces he was willing to celebrate the "proofs of revolutionary loyalty" that he himself lacked, e.g., in "The Way of Angelo Herndon" (1936) and in "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), in which he took black writers to task for not being more like the activists who mounted the Herndon and Scottsboro campaigns. For reasons that had more to do with self-sacrifice than talent, Herndon had stolen a march on Wright's mission to "tell common people of the self-sacrifice of the Communists who strove for unity among them" (Black 305). Herndon was briefly a lion in Wright's path, but also an informant about the protests, police beatings, and political trials that Wright himself had missed.
In 1937, the two served the Scottsboro industry at different levels. Herndon lent his name to a pamphlet (Scottsboro); Wright churned out twenty-five articles for the Worker, of which only two had bylines (Fabre, Unfinished 551n12). Some articles starred Herndon, e.g., "Herndon Signs Call for '500' Group" (Wright, "YCL"), as did three about the memorial for his heroic brother Milton. After Herndon's 400-page autobiography appeared from Random House in March, in August Wright got fourteen pages in a WPA anthology. American Stuff, for "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch." Much of what Wright had to say about his early experiences had already been said by Herndon, if not artfully. Wright too had been beaten, but not by police, and harassed in the workplace, without becoming an organizer. Wright had to write his way out of Herndon's shadow.
Both autobiographers receive their first lesson in Jim Crow when they get caught between a white gang and a ferocious mother. Learning from Angelo that he has run away from some white boys, Hattie Herndon declares, with eyes flashing fire, that he must face them or face her. When he is injured and laid up for two weeks in a skirmish, she again orders him to seek revenge or face a beating that "would make the wound from the stone look like a trifle" (Live 18). The future Communist learns resistance at the knee of his fervently Christian mother. At the start of "Ethics" Wright inverts Herndon's parable. Young Dick fights back against a white gang, and it is his mother who beats him senseless: "I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again" ("Ethics" 226). As an inside look at African American life, "Ethics" builds up to the question "How do Negroes feel about the way they have to live?" (236). Wright in effect answers: About the opposite of what Herndon tells you. For resistance, read 're signation.' Angelo learns to speak up; Dick learns to shut up.
Instead of Marxist polemics, Wright offers an "ethics" that veils his politics while encouraging white readers to do some veil lifting. Tight vignettes lead up to moments when he hears and records the voices of defeat and internalized violence. Both "Ethics" and Let Me Live include anecdotes of using a white voicing of "nigger" as an Open Sesame. Herndon's anecdote starts out generic. To free a friend from jail, he calls up the police and imitates the man's boss, superintendent of the Atlanta Plow Works: "'Well, captain, he's my nigger and a good one too.'" The cowed officer replies, "'Yes, sir, boss,'" and releases Herndon's friend (185). However, his glee at this "'white man's' trick" sours when he sees the beating his friend has received. In an anecdote retold in American Hunger Wright authenticates a borrowed card for the whites-only library with his own note: "'Please let this nigger boy have the following books'" ("Ethics" 235; Black 235). Whereas Herndon the activist gets a comrade out of jail, Wright the future writer gets himself into the library and ultimately out of the South.
Wright adapted and conspicuously improved another one of Herndon's beating narratives in his first book, Uncle Tom's Children (1938). He was reportedly under pressure from the most powerful African Americans in the CP, James Ford and Ben Davis, Jr., to downplay the violence in his stories and focus instead on the heroism of union organizers or icons like Douglass (Carlton Moss, qtd. in Hutchinson 150). (11) In American Hunger Wright claims to have worked up the first three stories over the objections of Party bosses by interviewing immigrants from the South so as "to voice the words in them that they could not say" (Black 322). No account is given for the fourth and final story, "Fire and Cloud," in which the CP enters the collection. (12) Lacking both his own battle scars and experience of political organizing in the South, Wright created a unified story out of disjointed incidents in Let Me Live rural organizing centered on a church (ch. 12), a police beating while chained to a tree (ch. 14), and a black-wh ite demonstration for relief benefits (Herndon's Atlanta triumph in ch. 16). (13) Wright acquitted himself as an incomparably superior storyteller, and Davis got a retelling of the prelude to the famous trial that was the making of his career in the CP. The Worker, where Davis was associate editor, serialized this happy parable about the convergence of Marxism with the Christian social ethic in the two weeks before Christmas (10-23 Dec. 1938), along with a disclaimer from Wright that the "scenes of brutalized torture" were not necessarily autobiographical (qtd. in Minor 7).
In chapter 12, Herndon is invited out to speak to sharecroppers in Wilcox County, Alabama, by one Reverend Hamilton, who then unaccountably turns out to be in cahoots with a black Justice Department agent and has Herndon driven out of town. Hamilton becomes in "Fire" the polar figures of the heroic Reverend Daniel Taylor and the "black Judas," Deacon Smith, who betrays Taylor to the white authorities. Herndon's own role as outside agitator shrinks to that of Comrade Green (green? Herndon was eighteen at the time), (14) and the violence he suffers at the hands of the Birmingham police (ch. 14) has been upstaged by the political conversion of a far more commanding figure, Reverend Taylor, by just such a beating. In August of 1931, police question Herndon about the Shades Valley murders and, to break his resistance, four of them drive him outside the city, chain him to a tree, and beat him with a rubber hose. Whereas earlier scrapes recalled the edifying tortures of Christian martyrs (Live 114), now "like on a m ovie screen" the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Minor, and Amis flash before him and "appeared to me in spirit to aid me" (153). Similarly, Reverend Taylor is chained to a tree by a four thugs for refusing to denounce a planned demonstration. He too becomes more defiant as the beating goes on. Herndon: "'If you have to kill me, shoot me!'" (Live 154); Taylor: "'A wright, kill me! Tie me n kill me!'" ("Fire" 390). The fire in Taylor's beaten flesh makes him the pillar that can lead his people. While limping home he sees a white neighborhood through apocalyptic, even revolutionary eyes: "'Some day theys gonna burn! some day they gunna burn in Gawd Awmightys fire!'" (393). Another fire engulfs him as he explains his wounds to his son: "'It was the fire of shame'" (395). The news that other black leaders and their families have been beaten leads him to the protest march. Herndon reacts similarly in his cell when he learns of a wave of lynchings: "I raged at my helplessness" (Live 159). Detailing the brutality and perversity of the mobs, (15) Herndon describes how the lynch fires burned their way into his soul as "a torch to me for all the days of my life" (160). Taylor's pillar of fire and Herndon's torch, though common images, are too similar in their origins to be coincidental. Identical demonstrations follow, though in Herndon's the sense of apocalypse is in the eyes not of the marchers but of the authorities: "It meant that the end of the world was at hand" (Live 191).
Uncle Tom's Children goes its own way for three stories, then converges with and surpasses Let Me Live in its final story, ending with a paradigmatic black-white demonstration. (16) Both books make nationalism understandable for white readers and suggest its growth as inevitable, before presenting the Party as an alternative. Barbara Foley analyzes how Wright works from a segregationist view in the first three stories to black-white collaboration in "Fire" and "Bright and Morning Star," added in 1940 (Radical 206-07). Let Me Live similarly starts with the white terror that fuels Angelo's angry nationalism until Marxism shows the way to interracial organizing with shared leadership. In the context of the Great Migration, William Maxwell aptly terms Wright's story "a blueprint for staying south with revolutionary intent" (173); Let Me Live sketches that blueprint. Whereas Herndon, like many others (Kelley 107-08), constantly goes back and forth between Marxist and biblical rhetoric, Wright shapes an apocalyptic symbolism that transcends the difference and, through the preacher and his flock, restores the sense of community lost in Herndon's constant denunciation of rival black leadership. (17) Out of Herndon's political experiences Wright stakes his own claims as a storyteller. As Ellison later put the matter, "How much, by the way, do we know of Sophocles' wounds?" ("World" 159).
Native Son (1940) goes far beyond Let Me Live in confronting the problem of violence in African American culture. Working in part from the Robert Nixon murder case, Wright draws on the Herndon case only to flesh out the roles of the Communist characters, all of them white. Virtually the same pamphlets found in Herndon's bedroom (18) are planted by Bigger Thomas in his own bedroom to frame the Communists for the murder of Mary Dalton, who was named after a CP functionary to whom Wright had taken a dislike in Chicago (Fabre, Unfinished 170). The pamphlets drag the Labor Defenders (i.e., ILD) into the case. Bigger's defense attorney, Boris Max (named after Alan Max of the Worker), at moments echoes Ben Davis, who was Wright's sponsor at the Worker and buffer against James Ford (Webb 154-56; Home 83-87). In his review of the novel for the Sunday Worker (14 Apr. 1940), Davis quotes with approval paragraphs from the start of Max's summation that read like an homage to his own career-making speech in Atlanta and tha t bear on Angelo's case far more directly than on Bigger's: The prosecutor is out to stop demonstrations for relief (Live 352; Native 807); the greater threat to civic order is the lynch mob that waits outside (19); the real issues are economic: "...he [Herndon] fought for the rights of the poor and needy without regard to their race or color" (Davis; Live 353);" 'Negroes, workers and labor unions were hated and as much yesterday as they are today'" (Max in Native 807). What Davis finds plausible as a Communist legal defense are the arguments that derive from himself in Atlanta; otherwise he is dismissive. The CP or the ILD would "chuck him [Max] out of the case" (6) for pleading Bigger guilty and foregrounding a black "criminal psychology." Davis objects that Wright's Communists are all white and come into the plot only "accidentally" rather than from continuing "community struggles." That accident involves the demotion of Herndon's Atlanta pamphlets from cause celebre to the evidence that Bigger plants in h is own bedroom to frame the Communists.
For the final prison scene, Wright took another page from Let Me Live, and again did some race changing. Boris Max's Marxist counseling of the condemned Bigger about the historical meaning of his experiences recalls Herndon's death-row mission to three baffled but grateful teenagers whom he attempts to wean from the Bible to the "glad tidings" of the Daily Worker (252-68). In both cases a prison chaplain is banished from the scene: a hypocritical white chaplain in Let Me Live and the black Reverend Hammond in Native Son. In Herndon's account, the departure of the white chaplain leaves the way clear for him to make a point about African American brotherhood, now that the segregated prison keeps him from advancing the CP's focus on "black and white unite and fight." To use Stepto's useful terms, Herndon's prison scenes depart the narrative of his "ascent" in the white CP to depict his "immersion" in the black culture that he found in the South. " 'I want you to be my son, too'" (261), says the mother of one of the teenagers, grateful that he took on the white judge and the white jury in Atlanta: "'We ain't never had one do that before.' "Bigger stands alone, and it is a murderer, not a hero, who stands up to whiteness. Whereas Herndon wrings pathos out of the deaths of innocent teenagers, Wright aims for shock, as Bigger casts his guilt in the teeth of Attorney Max: "'But what I killed for, I am!'" (Native 849).
After the success of Native Son Wright was free of Herndon's shadow, though he was now confronted with the need to explain that he was not Bigger, as he did in "How 'Bigger' Was Born" (1940) and more expansively in American Hunger (1945). The CP that Wright shows us from the late 1930s bears no trace of the Scottsboro and Herndon campaigns nor much beyond local causes. Wright depicts himself as interviewing and giving voice to immigrants from the South despite the resistance of ideologues, but never as working from the CP script. American Hunger, like "How Uncle Tom's Children Grew" (1938), simply omits the sources of "Fire and Cloud." Wright dates to 1936 the May Day parade from which he is extruded at the end of the narrative. If the date was 1937, as Margaret Walker recalls (85) and Wright himself claimed in a 1944 interview (Fabre, Unfinished 137-38), then the parade celebrated Herndon's victory five days earlier, and Wright moved to New York and met Herndon in the following weeks. Of this not a word, nor does Wright indicate how minor a comrade he actually was. As an instance of racial bad faith, Wright's hasty and unsought election as head of the John Reed Club in Chicago is local news compared to Herndon's service as the national head of the Young Communists League.
The end of American Hunger gives no hint that the alienated and misunderstood writer would then re-enlist in the CP in New York and, with the success of Native Son, take his turn as the representative Young Black Communist. Having suppressed that chapter in his life, Wright understandably skirted Herndon's earlier stardom. As in "Ethics," however, Herndon still at times provides Wright with the Marxist frame that he pointedly breaks out of. Let me focus on two examples: childhood hunger and Marxist conversion.
For both autobiographers, memory starts with childhood illness. At age six serious illness reveals to Angelo his family's desperate poverty, as well as their love; at age four Dick bums down the house and is beaten into a fever. The opening scenes are watched over by grandmothers who present respectively the angelic and demonic faces of American race mixture: "It [grandmother's face] was smooth and round and all her coloring was warm and red as a bloodbeet. Like all Indians, she had long, blue-black hair" (Live 6). "... the vivid image of Granny's old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying upon a huge feather pillow, made me afraid" (Black 5). Even the black hair is styled for contrast. From his sickbed, Angelo notices the eyes, inflamed with coal dust, of the loving father who will soon die to leave his hungry family yet hungrier and thereby draw his young worker sons down into the mines to learn the horrors of the bosses and the power of organizing. The figure at Dick's bedside seems initially different, as he wakes "to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly" (Black 16). That hunger, he quickly learns, results from his abandoning father--a more complex pathology of capitalism than "miner's pneumonia." (20) What comes of Dick's hunger is not just class consciousness but an existential condition and a trope for American experience. The intertext with Herndon reveals how intricately Wright signifies on Marxist narrative conventions in thematizing "American hunger." Even the high-flown title of part two, "The Horror and the Glory," turns out to be standard-issue on the evidence of Rev. W. L. Imes's encomium of Herndon: "'...upon you has fallen the agony and the glory of symbolizing [the] heroic workers of America' "(Live 321).
In time, reading-hunger sets in for Angelo (at seventeen) and Dick (at nineteen). The Christian conversions of both have gone awry. Angelo chokes on the icy water at his baptism; Dick lusts after the elder's wife and humiliates Granny. For Angelo the bottom rail rises and the Ethiopians find their place in the sun when a white worker invites him to a CP rally, where he see black and white uniting. He stays up nights translating the Communist Manifesto into his own simple terms, "dazzled beyond words by its truth" (Live 81). Mencken, not Marx, lifts the veil for Dick, who spends the night looking up the strange words in the Book of Prefaces, "jarred and shocked by the style" (Black 237). The veil is lifted on the "capitalists" for Angelo, the future organizer, and on the "bosses" and "Babbitts" for Dick, the future writer. But Dick did not get into the whites-only library by invitation and draws different conclusions about race. Whereas Angelo, having discovered white allies, at once outgrows his race hatred, Dick remains wary: "I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently" (Black 238). As a subversive reader, Wright obviously follows in Douglass's footsteps (Stepto 128-62), here restaging his discovery (at age twelve) of the Columbian Orator. But again it is useful to recognize the Marxist theme of which American Hunger provides the variation. Reading for Dick was a "secret, criminal burden" (Black 240); for young men like Angelo who "went to school in the Party," reading was less lonely but was literally criminalized. Angelo saw hundreds of police at that first rally.
Criminalized reading comes back in Wright's philosophical novel The Outsider (1953). This recasting of Crime and Punishment pivots on a raided bedroom and texts that establish "guilty thought"--not Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as for Herndon's prosecutor Hudson, but instead Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, and Dostoevsky for Cross Damon's prosecutor Houston. Just as Raskolnikov's article on the Ubermensch tips off Dostoevsky's Porfiry, these texts reveal Damon, who has left a string of corpses, to be an "ethical criminal." Already in Memphis Wright was touchy about the books in his bedroom (Black 208), and even in Paris felt surveilled, rightly as it turns out. In this fantasy of the reader as grand criminal, Wright is still playing with the structure of the Herndon case. The prosecutors Hudson and Houston share a morbid fascination with the power and danger of African Americans as readers.
In The Outsider's scathing satire of the CP, Herndon cannot be missed behind the name "Langley Herndon," the Fascist landlord who grapples with his Communist counterpart and is beaten to death by the nihilistic Damon. Langston Hughes, the eloquent foe of the landlords, seems to figure in the joke, as does the Daily Worker, for whose benefit the Communists have smuggled Damon into the building so that "Herndon" can evict him and be exposed. (21) For an allegory of Communists fighting Fascists, the Herndon brothers were ideal: Angelo participated in one of the few clashes on American soil, in Atlanta in the early 1930s (Live 165-67; Moore 454), and Milton fell in Spain. Similarly, the distinguished jurist Charles A. Houston, who wrote an amicus brief for the NAACP in the Herndon case (Live 318), may lurk--again, with broad irony--behind the demonic white prosecutor "Ely Houston," as may the tactless Anna Damon herself behind the portentous name "Cross Damon." (22) Wright is putting a curse on all of their polit ical houses and, with the "ethical criminal" Damon, dismantling the polarity drawn in Native Son between the uneducated black criminal and the white Communists. As in the case of Raskolnikov, Nietzschean theorizing leads to murder for Damon, a former philosophy student at the University of Chicago. As Herndon would have it, a black man can play all the parts, but now it is a demonic Damon instead of an angelic Angelo who plays the Representative Black Communist. Having served as a convenient way to work Communism into the last acts of Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son, Herndon is recruited here to make quick work of Communists and Fascists alike.
In The Long Dream (1958) Wright briefly revisits Herndon's beatings in the scene in which the protagonist, Fishbelly Tucker, is taunted as "the fading nigger" for repeatedly fainting when a policeman sadistically holds a knife to his groin. Defiantly Fish vows consciousness at any price: "He was willing to die, but he would never faint again, not as long as he lived" (Long 121). He earns contradictory praise as man and "boy" from a policeman: "'They made a man out of you today, didn't they, boy?'" By contrast, it is political commitment, not manliness, that keeps Herndon conscious in a police beating, the same one that Wright adapted twenty years earlier in "Fire and Cloud": "'You are not going to faint! You're going to survive! There's still a lot you can do. The working class needs you!'" (Live 152). After twenty years of rewriting Herndon's beatings and invaded bedroom, Wright may be coming to terms with his own battle-scar envy. Douglass is included in this Freudian satire: When arrested, Fish swallows a clipping of a scantily clad white woman, just as Douglass's "protections" had to be swallowed in the Run-Away Plot: "... the white men would never find that contaminating picture of the white woman's face that was still burning with a terrible luminosity in the black depths of him" (Long 115).
Most important for understanding Wright as writer are the moments in "Fire and Cloud" and Native Son when he can be seen navigating around Herndon and Ben Davis, Jr., in the awkward process of sounding acceptably Communist. The activist Herndon stood as a symbol of what was false in the CP's expectations of writers, though also one who was easily imitated and improved upon. For Wright's self-narratives in "Ethics" and American Hunger, Herndon's sentimental and often cliche-ridden Marxist autobiography was at many points a closely observed and vigorously rejected model. Unlike Ellison, Wright never delights in Hemdon's ear, his images, his quick shifts from Marxist boilerplate to inspired signifying.
Invisible Man presents a more detached and ironic picture of the rivalries and demeaning expectations that Wright experienced in the CP. As I argued above, the exploitation and abuse that the invisible man witnesses in the Brotherhood can often be traced back to Herndon in specific ways, though the phenomena are typical: The invisible man is not black enough. He thinks too much. Real suffering (Tarp's dented link) matters less than staging (Bledsoe's polished link). The independent Douglass is buried under the accommodating Washington. And the Party abandons its icons overnight (Tod Clifton). As a model for the invisible man's initial blindness about the Brotherhood, Herndon often needs little fictionalizing. About his triumphal return to New York in 1934 he exclaims: "People speak too lightly of the brotherhood of man. That day I experienced it completely. It filled me with a light so dazzling that I felt blinded" (Live 304). Yet mere pages before, Herndon has seen around the corner. In Atlanta at the start of his freedom ride he is terrified to see a gang waiting for him, who turn out to be bodyguards hired to protect him: "In any case they are thugs--only just lined up differently. This time they are on my side. Tomorrow they will be on their side--a lynch mob" (Live 299). Herndon keeps crossing this line.
Let Me Live is, with some telling slips, a remarkably layered performance: Herndon is alarmingly at risk in 1937, but also posturing as a martyr, and in his Angelo-persona suppressing the provocateur "Gene Braxton." As a study in the production and dismantling of martyrdom, Ellison's Tod Clifton owes much to him. Tod ('death') "plunged out of history" (Invisible 438) (Clifton: 'off a cliff'). In 1937 Herndon was bracketed between his own younger, more reckless self, "Gene Braxton," and the genuine Marxist martyr, older brother Milton. Brother Clifton? The run of names, Clifton/Braxton/Milton, is at least suggestive. Under the mask of Clifton, Ellison gathers Angelo's most glamorous, though hardly unique, fantasies of himself. Like Clifton, the "youth leader" (396), Angelo headed the Young Communists League. The "very black and very handsome" Tod enters with a bandage on his statuesque jaw (363); Herndon tells of being cajoled by the police as "'a good-looking lad'" and "'regular lady-killer'" (Live 107-08) be fore getting beaten like the Christian Martyrs of old (114). Like Tod, the photogenic Angelo was a sharp dresser, "except his head of Persian lamb's wool had never known a straightener" (Invisible 366). Why lamb? Tod ('death') ends up being a sacrificial lamb like Milton; Angelo claims our attention because he might be ("Let me live!"). As discussed above, the label on Tod's zoot suit may read "Negro Quarterly," and his death brings other traces of Angelo to the fore. The historically inaccurate black shirt worn by the policeman who guns down Tod may recall both Angelo's foes, the "American Fascisti Order of the Black Shirts" (Live 165-67) and the Spanish Fascists who shot down Milton. Finally, the invisible man's eulogy for Tod, who "'died like any dog in a road'" (Invisible 457), signifies on an embarrassing just-in-case eulogy that Angelo leaves for himself to climax his narrative, proclaiming to an admirer in 1936:" 'I would rather die like a man than live like a dog'" (Live 332).
The invisible man, Angelo, and puppets like them, with their paper identities and Party-pleasing ways, are among the targets of Tod's anti-minstrelsy with paper dolls in blackface (like his own black face on the Rainbow posters), dolls that dance on strings to the Sambo Boogie Woogie. Under that tissue of irony is something real, however, which Ellison called "the ultimate protest of decomposing flesh" ("Tell It" 43). Tod's body stinks of embalming fluid on a hot Harlem afternoon. In Let Me Live a dancing doll and protesting flesh are paired when, in a quiet riff on a political cliche, Herndon eulogizes a cellmate who was denied medical care and whose corpse, to his horror, was not removed for a day. Of poor Mr. Wilson Herndon says, "He was like a lifeless puppet. Outer forces pulled the strings and he danced to their mad music" (Live 207). Some of Tod's mad music improvises, it seems, on a couple of bars from Angelo. Tod's mask is not one that we can lift historically; the cop was his historian. Tod is many martyrs (including Joyce's Parnell), many fantasies (including Wright's), many archetypal heroes. At the core of the mystery is a man who, like Herndon in Ellison's estimate (Moore 213), could not figure out who he was. As a mocking tribute to the Marxist cult of martyrdom, the Brother Clifton/Milton/Braxton blues are crazy and sad. Ellison had known the man when, and still had Let Me Live as a uniquely rich transcription of the voice and no voice that the CP gave African Americans in the 1930s.
Ellison hears both the political fool and the protean narrator who can shift in a wink from sanctimony to signifying like seventh son Peter Wheatstraw. As we saw with Judge Abernathy at the outset, Angelo (who was a seventh son) was cagy when caged in monkey pens and doghouses. He can do white voices for white bosses: "'He's my nigger and a good one too'" (Live 185). He can do dialect: A prison guard, impressed at the flood of mail, asks if he is the King of Abyssinia:" 'I ain't sayin' I ain't, and I ain't sayin' I is,' I answered unsmilingly. 'But anyway I expect you to do me all the royal honors' " (219). A shoeshine boy in a white turban runs a similar scam in Invisible Man (499). Even in the thick pathos of Angelo's mercy to the three terrified teenagers before their execution, he can sound real. Seventeen-year-old Mose asks:
"You ain't against prayer, are you, Angelo?"
To this I replied with a familiar saying:
Prayers are all right in a prayer meeting
But they are not worth a damn in a bear meeting.
"What's a bear meeting?" asked Mose.
"You are in one now." (Live 257)
Whereas Wright at the end of Native Son gives Herndon's counseling role to Boris Max, Ellison sides with Herndon that there are African American mentors, teachers, older brothers out there: Peter, Tarp, Tod. (23) But you have to learn their language to survive the "bear meeting." To the future Jack-the-Bear, also in danger, Peter Wheatstraw offers a similar warning:" 'Man, this Harlem ain't nothing but a bear's den'" (174). Some of the music and myth of Invisible Man may be more recent and Red than we have realized.
Frederick T. Griffiths is Professor of Classics and Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst College. He is working on a study of African American philosophical fiction.
(1.) The definitive study of the Georgia case is that of Charles Martin. For Herndon in Alabama, see Kelley 18, 29, 38, and 82. On the importance of the case in constitutional law, Thomas gives access to literature since Martin.
(2.) The only mention is on 5 Sep. 1930: "F. [sic] Braxton, a Negro worker, was arrested as he left the park, and is still held in jail without charges" ("Birmingham Police" 3).
(3.) The white-identified Dr. Bledsoe also echoes Joyce's British-identified Dr. Deasy as he thrusts his grandiloquent article on hoof-and-mouth disease on Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.
(4.) Tarp declines to rehearse the stock scene of swimming a river to escape the bloodhounds (Invisible 388), of which Herndon gives an excited account though his escape was only from a company work camp (Live 52-54). His reports of the horrors of the "Death House" in Fulton Tower were questioned at the time since the electric chair was in Milledgeville (Martin 102).
(5.) The occasion was Douglass's birthday in 1937, celebrated on February 12 to displace Lincoln's. The Scottsboro defendants and others were included in the compliment, which was standard. The Worker hailed the Party's vice-presidential candidate, James Ford, as "the Frederick Douglass of 1936" (Hutchinson 98).
(6.) Herndon's eviction protests come later, for the white Brandon family, who like the Provos have nothing to show for a lifetime of work (Live 174-77).
(7.) Margaret Walker's journal of June 1939 records that she was introduced to Herndon and Alain Locke by Langston Hughes at the League of American Writers Congress (Daemonic 129).
(8.) In August of 1937 Herndon published a pamphlet, The Scottsboro Boys: Four Freed! Five to Go!, which pilloried the secretary of the Tuskegee Institute, Dr. G. Lake lines.
(9.) 22, 27, and 29 [unverified] Nov. 1937. The unsigned articles are included in Wright's clipping file (Richard Wright Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Box 6, Folder 139).
(10.) Frank Marshall Davis compares Herndon's departure from the OP favorably to that of Wright, since, "in incomparably worse financial straits, ... [Herndon] had turned down an opportunity to 'tell all' to the Hearst press for substantial financial gain" (243-44).
(11.) Upon the advice of Whit Burnett, Wright cut references to Scottsboro and the ILD from "Bright" before publishing the story in New Masses in May 1938 (Fabre, Unfinished 163).
(12.) In a speech to the Columbia Writers' Club in 1938 Wright said only that he was attempting "to try to depict in a dramatic fashion the relationship between the leaders of both races" ("How" 16).
(13.) Wright mailed the final version of "Fire" to Story magazine in September of 1937 (Fabre, Unfinished 156). Noting the similar 3:2 ratio of whites to blacks at the demonstration, Dan McCall posits Herndon's "You Cannot Kill the Working Class" (1934) as the source (30). Michel Fabre suspects Wright's unpublished "The Way of Angelo Herndon" (1936) as the source (Unfinished 135). William J. Maxwell analyzes a "signifying network" between "Fire" and Zora Neal Hurston's "The Fire and the Cloud" (1934) (173-76).
(14.) Green and the unsympathetic white Comrade Hadley try to impose doctrine on the farmers in ways that Donald Gibson takes to be a critique of OP strategies (32). Along much the same line Herndon admits that he learned not to lecture to the farmers, letting them work from their own political forms (Live 132-33).
(15.) Here Herndon might be taking his signal from the frank description of Bobo's lynching in "Big Boy Leaves Home," which had appeared to good notices in The New Caravan (1936).
(16.) Instances of black-white collaboration among Southern farmers were in fact rare (Kelley 34-56). Wright's 5000-person demonstration is implausible for a small town, but seems to derive from Herndon's Atlanta demonstration, perhaps with some help from the OP press: "5,000 White and Negro Workers in B'ham Protest Unemployment," Southern Worker 27 Dec. 1930.
(17.) Among the "black Judases" are William Pickens of the NAACP, Oscar Adams, Congressman Oscar De Priest, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, and numerous black ministers and middle-class "respectables." The list was typical (Home 47).
(18.) The Communist Position on the Negro Question (Live 226) becomes The Negro Question in the United States (Native 535). Arthur Garfield Hays's Trial by Prejudice (1933), which opens with a section on Herndon, becomes Race Prejudice on Trial (Native 535).
(19.) Davis: "'Gentlemen of the Jury, it is not Herndon who is the insurrectionist. It is the lynch mobs, the Ku Kluxers...'" (Live 352); Max: "'How can I, I asked myself, make my voice heard with effect above the hungry yelping of hounds on the hunt? ... An outright lynching would be more honest than a 'mock trial!'" (Native 805). White defense witnesses are again asked if they would let their daughter/sister marry a Negro (Live 232; Native 745).
(20.) Both mothers piously hope that God will feed hungry children, but then turn militant, in variously threatening to beat Angelo for not fighting a white gang (Live 17); beating Dick for doing so ("Ethics" 226); and threatening Dick for losing the grocery money (Black 19).
(21.) The name might also refer to Mrs. Loretta Langley, an activist in the Scottsboro campaign whose eviction protest was publicized by the Worker in 1938 ("Negro Tenants").
(22.) With similar irony, Damon's New York alias, "Lionel Lane," may recall slave narrator Lunsford Lane, who bought his wife and seven children out of slavery, while Damon renounces his wife and sons to their faces. His girlfriend, the blonde Eva Blount (Hilton), may echo Eva Braun (Hitler), as well as the biblical Eve and Stowe's Little Eva.
(23.) Herndons self-education and role as teacher contradict Ellison's depiction of black activists being tutored by white theorists. Foley cites other examples ("Rhetoric" 535-36).
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|Author:||Griffiths, Frederick T.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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